Argentina gets closer to expanded abortion rights

The tide is turning for abortion rights in Argentina. Congress is to consider a bill giving women access to legal abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Español

Shena Cavallo
3 April 2018

Protest in favor of abortion rights in Buenos Aires, March 2018. Image: Fotografías Emergentes, via International Woman's Coalition. All rights reserved.

Last March 6, more than 70 members of the Argentine Congress supported a bill to decriminalize abortion. The proposed bill would give women the right to access a legal abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy, for any reason, without facing criminal charges.

In the past 13 years, 6 such bills have been presented to Congress, with little success. Current Argentinian law only permits abortion when the woman’s life or health is in danger, or in the case of rape. The bill now to be considered by Congress has renewed the hopes of feminist activists in the country, not least because the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion has played a vital role in shaping it. In a country where religion plays an important role, Catholics for the Right to Decide-Argentina (CDD-Argentina), a longtime grantee partner of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), is one of the leaders of the National Campaign. 

The government must recognize and respond to the realities of abortion restrictions, which are forcing women and girls to seek out back-alley providers 

The proposed bill to expand abortion access is the culmination of a grassroots movement to advance the right to choose. In February, thousands of women took to the streets in Argentina to demand expanded access to safe, legal abortion. A sea of protesters in green scarves - the distinctive emblem of the National Campaign - gathered in front of the National Congress, while the hashtag #LegalAbortionNow trended across social media.

The message was clear: the government must recognize and respond to the realities of abortion restrictions, which are forcing women and girls to seek out back-alley providers in order to end unwanted or unsafe pregnancies.

On March 2, President Mauricio Macri called on Congress to open the debate on abortion - even as he kept himself at a safe arms-length distance from the issue. He reiterated his anti-abortion stance, and laid out the parameters for a “responsible” debate, in which a range of opinions and perspectives must be heard. Macri’s comments seem to stem from a belated realization that despite his own opinion on the issue, the country is clamoring for change and the demand for the right to abortion has become too loud to ignore.

The bill is a product of tireless advocacy and work by Argentina’s strategic, powerful women’s movement. Our grantee partner, CDD-Argentina, has spent years raising media awareness on abortion issues, and teaching journalists to cover abortion accurately and in a way that reflects the reality of women who experience unwanted pregnancies. CDD-Argentina has also built public support for and called attention to the disastrous impact of abortion criminalization on the lives of Argentine women. A prime example is the case of Belén, a woman sentenced to 8 years in prison for “aggravated double homicide” after she experienced a miscarriage and sought medical care.

The commitment to safe, legal, and free abortion lies at the heart of the women’s movement. I witnessed this firsthand at the 2017 National Women’s Gathering, where an astounding 70.000 women convened to learn from one another, strategize, and energize. Sex workers, rural women, indigenous women, working class women, disabled women, and trans women came together to discuss a wide range of issues which affect women and non-conforming gender people, including violence against women, expanded abortion rights, economic justice, and climate change. That same commitment to abortion was on display earlier this month, when feminists and allied partners in Argentina marked International Women’s Day with a women’s strike in which reproductive rights was a prominent demand.

According to data from the Ministry of Health, between 370.000 to 522.000 clandestine abortions are performed each year, many of them unsafe.

Unable to deny the growing demand for expanded abortion rights, Congress has agreed, for the first time ever, to go ahead with a debate on the new bill. (Previous decriminalization bills did not garner enough signatures to reach a quorum for open debate.) While the bill has a long road ahead - it must pass through 4 commissions before being debated in Congress – there is reason to believe that this time things will be different.Unlike Brazil and Peru, where hard-line Evangelicals have consolidated control in local and national legislative bodies, Argentina’s Congress lacks a fundamentalist bloc organized and united against women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights. At the same time, public support for decriminalizing abortion is on the rise. A recent survey - conducted by Amnesty International and IWHC’s grantee partner Centre for Studies on State and Society (CEDES) in partnership with Quiddity - shows that more than half of the population fully or partially supports decriminalization. There is also the fact that abortion remains incredibly common in Argentina, despite current restrictions. According to data from the Ministry of Health, between 370.000 to 522.000 clandestine abortions are performed each year, many of them unsafe.

Given these statistics, advocates have focused their energies on ensuring that as many women as possible can access legal abortion until the law gets changed. CEDES, for example, works with healthcare providers to build their capacity to offer non-judgmental, quality abortion services, and to understand that the health exception in the current law includes mental health and social well-being. In doing so, CEDES has not only helped expand access under the current exceptions, but has helped to create a cohort of health providers who are well-trained vocal abortion rights champions.

The new bill is a victory for the women’s movement, but the momentum behind it is the result of many years of tireless work on the part of activists, NGOs, the National Campaign, and committed, pro-choice journalists, health providers, lawyers, and others.

The promise of a congressional debate on decriminalization holds enormous regional resonance. Some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world are found in Latin America and the Caribbean - although there are indications that entrenched views on abortion are softening. In 2012, Uruguay decriminalized the procedure, thanks to a large extent to the persistent efforts of the feminist movement there. Last summer, Chile took a historic step to expand access to abortion. If the trend holds, Argentina may be the next country in Latin America to move the needle on abortion rights.

Whatever happens, we know that Argentina is edging closer to expanded abortion rights and that this is the result of many years of hard work by dedicated and determined women’s rights activists across the country.

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